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Lost landscapes and the grief of nature’s tessellationsJasmin Kirkbride

Jasmin Kirkbride
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Wherever there is the potential for planting, I will garden. Whether it’s in a pot or on a balcony, or in my own dear garden which I’ve been raking and sowing since March. I write about the garden in a weekly mailing list, Pond Tales, chronicling the antics of the frogs and birds. However, with the sea of hopes and disappointments brought about by COP26, this week’s story took a turn.

   It became about the gardens beyond my garden because, though my garden is an important place, it is only one of the thousand landscapes that live inside me – and all these other landscapes reflect and affect my relationship to it. In my mind’s eyes are many contours of ground interrupted by the Richter-scale spikes of trees and shrubs, which resonate into the here and now, even if they belong to places I can no longer access.

   My grandmother’s garden, for example, was an idyllic acre of rolling grassy platforms, interconnected by steps, walls and staircases covered in moss, ivy, and Russian vine. I still have all the smells and sounds and senses inside me: the resistance of pulling a weed from the patio; the earthy pressure under my fingernails of digging big stones from the shingled drive; the sharp bark of my favourite climbing tree; the hiss of hose-water on stone; the motion of freshly washed sheets in the wind; the ‘shick’ of my skirt on the orange plastic swing when I jumped from it; the hoot of a wood pigeons – and, yes of course, my great-grandmother’s wormery and her historic exclamation on the benefits of ‘you know, their crap!’

   The memories are bittersweet. For various reasons, the garden isn’t in the family anymore, but I still get snatches of it sometimes, in the feel of a branch, the angle of the sun through leaves, the call of those wood pigeons… In one sense it doesn’t matter that I can’t physically access it anymore, because all I have to do is close my eyes and there it is, laid out for me in every detail. In another sense, it matters immensely that I will never set foot in it again because it was one of my homes.

   There are many landscapes that are part of me which I no longer or rarely have access to. From my time in London – to name but a few – St James’ Park with its charming lawns, embrace of trees, and delicate Mandarin ducks; the balcony of my second year flat with its temperamental fairy lights and the lime green lemon-smelling fir tree that didn’t make it through the year; the balcony of my last shared house in London, where the rose and holly now planted in the Little Garden first appeared in pots; the square of green in front of Senate House Library where I made friends with a squirrel and enemies of a great many pigeons (the war goes back well beyond the Little Garden, as you see).

   The gardens that make up my life now do not contain the same historic amplitude – but they would take it on, if I were to lose them. My Little Garden, which I write about here and worry about always; my mother’s garden, which this week has become the home of a whole hedgehog family; the parks I frequent, with their sprawling and enviable herbaceous borders; and the land around my university, a spectacular backdrop both ruined and elevated by the concrete Escher-like structures of the academy.

   Each evening while I work with my fellow PhDers in our office, the starlings gather overhead, coming in from the wetland reserves beyond the lake to use our brutalist offices as a gathering point. Their view from the rooftops must be spectacular. In the encroaching autumn sunsets, they swoop and dive, black arrows against a grey-cloud-spotted, blue-and-pink canvas. Their call is an excuse to look up and gaze through the window at their mesmerising murmuration. As if they’re squealing, ‘Time to go home, you’ve done enough! Time to go home, you’ve done enough!’ I am painfully aware that when I graduate this landscape with all its little signals might also be lost to me.

   I spend a lot of time thinking about lost landscapes. When people ask me what my thesis is about, I always say, flippantly, ‘Oh, time travel and tiny robots’. I’ve learned the awkward way that giving people the real answer kills a party. But really what I’m looking at is how the loss of climate change inhabits the stories we tell, and how we can still manifest hopes in the depths of a grief that is only just starting to break over us. How do we grieve for what we’ve already lost, and still rescue what we have? How do we maintain hope when the bureaucracies that should save us keep falling far short of what’s so desperately needed? Norfolk is a low, flat land at risk from rising sea levels and I never go to my favourite beaches without wondering: how many more landscapes will I be forced to lose?

   It would be extremely egotistical to think I can answer these questions – I’m not even trying to, I’m just exploring them. PhD theses rarely answer anything definitively. We just fill in another tiny square on the edge of what the map of knowledge might look like. No doubt the next cli-fi specialist will prove me wrong, but that’s how knowledge works when it’s at its best. Each one of us takes one step closer to ‘the truth’, and none of us ever quite get there.

   Even so, this much is true for me – not empirically, perhaps, but emotionally: when I catch sight of those lost landscapes, fragmented and tessellated and slotted into the present, I am caught on their shards in a way that is both immensely painful and utterly pleasurable. The resonance of grief is that it at once sees you and excludes you – but the resonance of landscape loss is that it reminds me how interconnected I still am. The iterating motifs of landscapes – the very fact I can find shards of my grandmother’s garden in the hint of a Norfolk hillside or a flower at the park – demonstrate that the world is interconnected. Every step beyond the horizon brings a series of semi-familiar repeating patterns that hold and guide me. It’s a generosity in the world which I can never repay. The land lives inside of me, and without it, all my context would vanish – I’d have nowhere to live and nowhere to hide and nowhere to play.

   I wonder if we need to overcome the common idea that when we act for the environment, we’re only acting for an anonymous others – a human on the other side of the world, a plant that can never thank us, a landscape that isn’t our own, a child who isn’t born yet. Yes, we are always acting for the greater community of human and ecosystem when we act for the environment, as we should be. But we are also so deeply entwined with these natural systems that of course we are also acting for ourselves. To say otherwise is to ignore what is at stake: our history, our present, the continuity of our contexts. The contours inside us that tell us where we’ve been and where we might be going.

   When I go for a country walk and breathe in the big Norfolk sky, I’m breathing in the Australian sky I was born under; when I see the cloudburst contour of mountains on the horizon, I am a little closer to my Dad in his New Zealand perch; when I hear a wood pigeon I’m pottering with my great-grandmother in her potting shed, or spot a lark, with my grandmother in the herbaceous border. Some loss in life in inevitable and, to an extent, manageable, but I wonder how much landscape loss we are built to take: it frightens me that the larks and the wood pigeons and the blue sky and the far horizon might not always be there. I might lose the wider recognisable tessellations of the world too, just like my grandma’s garden, and that would be unbearable.

   I’ll stop now. I’m going to take the bet you know what I’m talking about. You’ll have lost landscapes somewhere inside you too; different places, same exquisite grief


Jasmin Kirkbride is a writer, editor and academic. She’s published short fiction in places including, as well as poetry, nonfiction, and peer-reviewed papers. Her PhD at UEA, where she’s also an Associate Tutor, explores hope in climate fiction. | @jasminkirkbride


Act Now: Gardens can exist anywhere from a flowerbed in your back yard to pot plants in your bedroom. Wherever you are able to, garden! Every plant contributes to maintaining natural habitats, drawing down carbon, and providing precious oxygen. But garden with the environment in mind: grow species that will support your local wildlife and pollinators, use peat-free compost, and avoid invasive species.